London Waterloo was a station in need of refurbishment. The great, hulking terminus was a mess of dilapidated kiosks and shabby facilities. When they finally tarted the place up, they took the opportunity to stuff it full of shops and restaurants. Unsurprisingly, these were soulless chain outlets - bland units designed to match the average commuter's requirements: food, drink, and reading material.
There was a tiny lick of sophistication, however. Or so the designers thought. The station had been painted over with a modernist brush. It was meant to be pleasingly functional. But of course, nothing misfires quite like 'the modern'. The restaurants on the mezzanine were a little too polished for a London train station. These gaudy eateries could have been ripped from the heart of Cold War Moscow. The centre piece of this food and beverage emporium was a wine bar: a neon-lit monstrosity for businessmen looking to work up a little afternoon courage.
Next to the bar was the most depressingly misplaced Carluccio's in London. It had all of the usual faux-Felini trappings, but was jammed into a nook in the corner. The gap between the restaurant and the edge of the mezzanine was a scant couple of metres. Nevertheless, there was a row of tables along the edge, overlooking the main concourse. Hemmed in by a ceaseless flow of frazzled Londoners, it was one of the worst date venues imaginable. Who on earth would select this merciless flesh-pit for a night of romance? Me, that's who.
Daisy from Marketing had agreed to have a drink with me, with the proviso that she still makes the 19.37 from Waterloo to Clapham Junction. I suggested the bar at the station. On arrival, it seemed a poor choice. It was a charmless drinking-hole, loaded with dark mysticism and sorrow - a locale with the frosty charm of Superman's Fortress of Solitude.
"How about an Italian instead?" I said, dodging around the brand.
We walked into Carluccio's to find every table was taken. A hostess approached.
"How about the balcony, sir?" She waved at the under-occupied area.
They had annexed the concourse and called it a balcony. I admired their spin.
"The balcony would be just fine," I said.
I motioned for Daisy to sit as I twisted my body away from an oncoming clutch of tourists. The narrow pass quickly filled with bodies. I slid into my seat as they trampled through.
"This is nice," I said, "check out the view."
It was an unremarkable crowd of commuters.
"It's different, all right."
"Hey, you know me, always pushing the boundaries."
For a moment she studied the frantic shuffling below. A thousand people wanted to get home.
"It's fine, I like different."
Daisy ordered linguini while I opted for the lasagne - a pedestrian choice to offset my odd choice of venue. I ordered a bottle of house white, selecting it by name, as if the price was incidental.
"You make me laugh," Daisy said, "mister HR, always trying to say the right thing."
"Better than saying the wrong thing."
"I said trying, not succeeding. Anyway, I like it. You do try to sort people out."
I looked out onto the concourse.
"That's a nice thing to say. What do you mean?"
"I remember when you sacked Jeremy, he said you were pretty decent about it."
Of course, I had deployed the Nuremberg defence before sending a good man to the dole queue.
"Well, there was no point in being horrible. The situation was bad enough as it was."
"Not bad for you, it's just your job. Jeremy had a wife and kids."
The waitress brought our food over, skipping between a couple of luggage hauling matrons. She put the plates down and I thanked her warmly for what looked like mediocre fare.
I said, "about Jeremy..."
"Don't be ridiculous." Daisy flicked open her napkin. "The man was an idiot, he deserved it."
A group of school children had gathered next to us and were leaning over the balcony, daring each other to spit over the edge. Daisy laughed.
"Nice date venue," she said.
"So, this is a date then?"
"Of course it is."
A voice on the public address system announced the 19.37 to Clapham Junction. Daisy shrugged and took a sip of wine. I glanced at the swirling mob pushing towards the gates. Everyone was in a hurry, apart from us.Suggest a correction